From death threats to a life of freedom - the passage taken to Oxford by refugees

Hassan Seguya. Picture: OX67873 Damian Halliwell

Hassan Seguya. Picture: OX67873 Damian Halliwell Buy this photo

First published in News

WHEN the light shone into Hassan Seguya’s cell after two years of solitary confinement, he thought he was being taken to his death.

Locked up in a Ugandan prison “safe house” for campaigning for the opposition party against President Museveni in the East African nation, he had been kept in total darkness since his imprisonment in 2006.

He was given electric shocks, endured mock executions, had chillis rubbed in his eyes and was forced to drink acid.

His family and friends thought he was dead, as his brother and father had both been killed for joining the same party.

But all was not lost. Mr Seguya said his mother sold their house to pay a bribe and was able to get him out of prison. He was driven to the airport and flown to the UK via Kenya.

Despite appealing to the Home Office, his initial request for asylum was turned down.

Hassan said: “It was so scary, I did not know what to do.”

It took five years for asylum to be granted to Mr Seguya, who spent time in four detention centres around the country including Campsfield House in Kidlington, and had his application rejected three times with the threat of deportation hanging over him.

In 2010 he was released from detention and got in touch with a volunteer at Oxford charity Asylum Welcome, who in turn put him in contact with Emmaus Oxford, Oxford Road, which helps the homeless by renovating furniture.

They helped him get his life on track by reapplying for asylum, which was granted last January, and enrolling him in courses in care work.

And volunteers helped put him back in contact with his family in Uganda.

Volunteer Wyon Stansfeld, who helped Mr Seguya, said: “I happened to be going back to Uganda, so I helped track down Hassan’s mother.

“When I found her she was living in a slum.”

He gave her a phone and she was able to speak to her son for the first time since his imprisonment.

She told him that after he had escaped, his younger brother had also disappeared and never returned.

Now 32, Mr Seguya is now a care worker and enjoying his freedom. He said: “Emmaus have been amazing, they have really turned my life back to normal.

“If I wasn’t here I don’t know where I would be. I could be dead.”

Mr Seguya is just one of hundreds of asylum seekers Asylum Welcome, based in Magdalen Street, helps every year.

While the Home Office said it does not record the number of refugees and asylum seekers at local level, hundreds are thought to be in the city.

In the first three months of 2014, a total of 25,355 people in the UK were in receipt of section 95 support, a cash benefit paid for by the UK Border Agency (UKBA).

Just 13 of the claimants were in Oxfordshire, though Oxford charity Asylum Welcome helps more than 700 a year.

An asylum seeker is someone who has arrived in the UK and has officially sought asylum, whereas a refugee has yet to do so.

Oxford Refugee Week co-founder Wyon Stansfeld said: “We are trying to make people more aware of the genuine challenges that many asylum seekers face.

“There is a culture of disbelief at the moment so it has been organised to try to challenge that.”

Kate Smart, director of Asylum Welcome, which helps people settle into the community, said the number of asylum seekers and refugees in Oxford are “low compared to other places”.

She said: “Most come here because they have a friend who can give them somewhere to stay, at least temporarily.

“Some come because they have heard of Oxford, especially if they would like to study.

“The children who are without parents may have been allocated a place in Oxford by social workers.”

The charity runs a food bank, offers weekly hot meals and English classes and visits detainees at Campsfield House.

Those it helps come from countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mrs Smart said: “For us it is about making people feel welcome, to try to treat them with dignity and respect, and raising awareness.

“They are the most vulnerable part of society and we are in the position to be able to engage with with people and, in some cases, detainees.”

DREAMING OF A FUTURE DANCING ON ICE

A 15-YEAR-OLD former child refugee whose family fled war-torn Africa and settled in Oxford has set her sights on becoming an Olympic ice skater.

When civil war rocked the West Africa’s Eritrea 13 years ago, television journalist Eden Habtemichael and her two-year-old daughter, Segen, fled the country fearing for their lives.
Segen, now a pupil at Oxford’s St Gregory the Great School, first took to the ice when she was six-and-a-half.

Over the past nine years she has won more than 60 awards and now has her sights firmly set on competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics.


She said: “In the future, I’d really love to compete in the Winter Olympics to make my mum proud.

“When I’m on the ice nothing else matters.”

Oxford Mail:

  • Segen Habtemichael. Picture: OX67806 Antony Moore

She has no memory of her family’s ordeal but said: “I think a lot of people don’t know anything about refugees; or they just have a negative stereotype of them.

“But just because people are refugees doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a chance to make something of themselves, or that they won’t amount to anything.

“Refugees are really just the same as everyone else, except they’ve had to leave their country. It’s important we welcome them to the UK.”

Segen’s mum now works for the Refugee Resource charity.

She said: “I’ve always encouraged Segen to try to do something for our community and country; it’s so important to give back to the country that’s welcomed us. I’m really proud of what she’s achieved.

“Given what we’ve been through, it makes me feel emotional to think about her possibly representing Team GB one day on the ice. It would be a dream come true.”

'PEOPLE ARE RISKING LIVES TO GET TO EUROPE'

ALMAS Farsi, also known as Navid, is co-ordinator of Asylum Welcome’s advice service.

As a former refugee himself he knows just how important it is for refugees and asylum seekers to fit into their new community.

Oxford Mail:

  • Director Kate Smart and co-ordinator Almas Farsi at Asylum Welcome. Picture: OX67851 Ed Nix

The 53-year-old fled Iran in 1993 because he was a member of the opposition party.
He arrived in the UK in 2003 and studied politics and social policy at Goldsmiths, University of London.

He said: “People are risking their lives to get to Europe, to cross the borders and cross the seas – they are dying.”

SUPPORT FROM ASYLUM WELCOME OXFORD IN PAST YEAR

  • Adult asylum seekers and refugees given advice and information: 415
  • Detainees given advice and support: 173
  • Young (under 18) asylum seekers and refugees given advice: 85
  • Young asylum seekers and refugees attending weekly youth club (average): 18
  • Clients receiving English lessons: 14
  • Clients helped to enrol on other education /training courses: 50
  • Clients receiving a hot lunch (average): 10
  • Total number of clients: 737

FINANCIAL AID

ASYLUM seekers in Oxfordshire in receipt of Section 95 support in the first three months of the year

  • 2004: 179
  • 2005: 103
  • 2006: 83
  • 2007: 43
  • 2008: 37
  • 2009: 24
  • 2010: 23
  • 2011: 20
  • 2012: 9
  • 2013: 15
  • 2014: 13

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